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Human Centered Design – 1969 Artists’ Version

by | Mar 11, 2021

In 1969, a group of telecommunications specialists and artists flew to India. Their purpose? To develop an educational television network. Think ed-tech, but before advanced technology, in rural India, and developed with artists. 

But why would a technology research company bring on artists for a project that involved satellite communication and advanced technologies? How would they connect these advanced technologies with something that people could understand, enjoy and relate to in an impactful way? 

This was a question that Billy Kluver, an engineer at Bell Labs, aimed to answer. During the 60s, he started to collaborate with artists on projects involving new technologies – bringing engineers and artists together. Kluver thought that [1]:

“artists’ projects could stimulate the engineer in new ways of looking at technology and influence technological development for the future.” 

That’s why, in 1966, he co-founded a non-profit organization in New York named Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) with the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. E.A.T. coordinated the pairing of artists and engineers, helping artists achieve their vision through access to up-and-coming technologies with the knowledge engineers could provide. 

Through their artistic work and technological expertise, they became a legendary example of successful collaboration between artists and engineers. They expanded their collaboration to the outside world, giving birth to the “Outside of Art” initiative in 1969, an extension of their previous efforts to stretch the boundaries of technology.  

This extension applied ideologies from E.A.T. to issues such as climate change (before we were aware of the climate crisis!), energy production, and health. The organization accepted proposals and assigned teams to fulfill them, ultimately conceptualizing technology like hydroponics, lasers, software, and other innovations before their time. 

What did Kluver understand intuitively that we have started to understand in the last few years? 

Probably, our current relationship with technology as humans – acknowledging that technology needed a little something else. It needed a more humane touch, a human-centric focus. And he and his team knew that focus could come from artists, who historically have been able to communicate foreign concepts to people in a relatable way. 

E.A.T’s initiative was an inspiration for our relationship with technology as it stands today.

This is where the Anand Project in India enters. In the same year, E.A.T was approached to bring their innovation and human-centric focus to rural villages in India. The team’s efforts serve as a great example of how artists could utilize technology in new, impactful ways that then become widely accepted parts of our society. 

 

Billy Kluver, E.A.T

1968 Billy Klüver lectures on E.A.T. | Courtesy: ZKM Mediathek, Karlsruhe ©

Example of Human-Centered Design: The Anand Project

E.A.T.’s impressive history with technology could have been why Vikram Sarabhai, then the head of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, asked them to help bring educational programming to rural parts of India. He had facilitated an agreement with NASA to borrow a communications satellite that would allow the broadcast of video to areas that did not have access.

But Sarabhai understood that excellent technology is not enough. Storytelling, engagement, and understanding what people need are more important. And he understood that this is what artists could provide to the project. Maybe this is because he himself was surrounded by artists. In fact, his wife was a dancer. Through his history with artists, he understood the value they could add to projects, including helping create a broadcast instructional video.

The project’s purpose was to create instructional videos for the women at Anand who raised and tended the milk-producing buffalo. They had to research the best way to create educational programming to connect and resonate with the villagers. 

The team wanted to learn [2] how people saw their environment and what their learning process was. So a group of artists, engineers, and education specialists eventually decided to use ½ inch video, a novel technology at the time, to collect material for the project.

This technology allowed them to collaborate with the women by taking videos of them or having them record themselves, to view the environment through their lens. They also used the milk distribution system to spread the video and get feedback from the villagers about what they had recorded.

Their experience with the ½ inch video and collaboration with the villagers proved just how useful this recording system could be for creating informational videos. Their focus on the human, on how they would react to this technology, was so successful that, in 1971, it was the basis for broadcasting by NASA. When they launched the satellite in India as part of the SITE satellite project, they used this video format as the basis for the instructional programs they broadcasted. 

 

Human Centered, EAT

Site Reports from Nasa | 1976 Howard L. Galloway Jr.

What Did It Teach Us?

Anand shows us that focusing on the human-center design was long before the concept got its title; it shows us that focus on the human user is crucial to the success of new technologies, and it also shows us the value of including artists in the process. 

When the satellite launched in 1971, Indian broadcasters used some of E.A.T.’s footage for the content. They also used the feedback gathered from locals to design the programming. 

And it was a success! 

In NASA [3] documents, officials witness how engaged the audience was with the content. Sometimes they couldn’t get close to the screen because hundreds of people would crowd around one TV set. 

And not only were they interested in the content, but they were also learning from it. The NASA documents also show that people started rushing to the doctor for smallpox vaccinations after learning about it from the TV. 

The content was able to pull people in and actually cause change. While the technology was a wonder in itself, it would not have been effective without keeping the viewer in mind. Without the research done by the E.A.T team, that content might not have felt relatable to the villagers. Without a human-centered focus, the project might not have been as successful. The wonder of satellite TV wouldn’t have reached its full potential.

Years before the human-centered design was conceptualized as a formal process, the artists who formed part of EAT were practicing it actively. Artists have always been human-centric. Art, by its definition, is human-centric; it aims to pull at your emotions, whether that be sadness, happiness, anger, or confusion. It often aims to improve people’s lives, whether for an individual purpose or a political one. 

The Anand Project is just one example of many where artists could apply this aspect of their work to impact and include others. Now, we have the term “human-centered design” to describe this way of thinking, but we mustn’t forget that artists always thought this way. Something within them naturally pulls them to think with people in mind. 

To this day, Bell Labs aims to include artists in their research work to challenge their perceptions of technology. The artists’ perspective always puts people first – how can the technology be used to communicate better or relate to others. Should we not include this way of thinking in all business environments?

 

 

To learn more about artists and their role in human-centered design check out our blog

Interested in bringing this perspective into your own company? Check out The Artian’s trainings!

 

Reference:

[1] Dartmouth. “E.A.T.: Experiments in Art & Technology,1960-2001.” YouTube

[2] Oxford University. “Experiments in Art and Technology – Episode 37 – The Oxford Comment.” OUPblog

[3] Galloway, Jr. , Howard L. “SATELLITE INSTRUCTIONAL TELEVISION EXPERIMENT (SITE) REPORTS FROM THE NASA RESIDENT REPRESENTATIVE IN INDIA.” 

 

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